Pronouns—they're something a lot of us take for granted in everyday life. If you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, pronouns might not be something you've had to think about. If you or someone in your life is transgender, genderqueer, or another gender-variant, you probably know how important it is to get pronouns right, even if you don't do so the first time.
Lost? Let's back up. Pronouns are linguistic tools that we use to refer to people: he/him/his, she/her/hers, they, them, their.
Why do pronouns matter?
Pronouns are an important part of our identities—they are the basics on how we want to be referred.
"Normalizing pronouns creates safe spaces for our gender diverse community," says Ariel Malan, program coordinator for University of Utah Health's Transgender Health Program. "It's OK to make a mistake, but it's not OK to intentionally misgender someone by using the wrong pronouns. You don't have to agree with how someone identifies to respect them as a person."
According to Psychology Today, when someone who identifies as transgender is surrounded by a supportive community—think teachers, friends, family, colleagues, etc.—their rates of mental health issues are markedly decreased.
Furthermore, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation notes, "In a study published in the Journal of Child and Psychiatric Nursing, Dr. Caitlin Ryan and colleagues found that LGBTQ youth with affirming families reported higher levels of self-esteem and overall health. Youth with the least accepting families were more than three times as likely to consider and attempt suicide compared to those with highly accepting families (Ryan 2010)."
The Trevor Project also reports that transgender and nonbinary youth who report having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected.
How can I be an ally?
Understanding the importance of the role pronouns play, the next step is to educate yourself. It's important that we all share our pronouns, because if transgender people are the only ones sharing theirs, it essentially outs them, which can create an unsafe situation for them.
- Ask respectful questions to show you're interested. For example, asking "What are your pronouns?"
- Don't be afraid to add your own pronouns when introducing yourself, or create a name tag or email signature.
- Be reassuring. Let every person know that you respect and care for them.
- Normalize pronoun asking, sharing, and using (see this great resource for more about pronouns).
- Recognize that there are many ways that someone can express their gender; nobody likes to be put in a box, so allow people to express themselves in the ways that they choose.
- Use a person's chosen name at all times. This is a form of respect and goes the same for pronouns.
- It's OK to ask questions, but remember to do your own research as well. Many resources are available for those who want to learn more about how to be an ally. Here's a few: